Iron Man 3 was a tipping point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe
As a movie star, Robert Downey Jr was born to play Tony Stark and deliver Shane Black dialogue. Iron Man 3 has him doing both so, why is it still considered divisive in some quarters?
Directed and co-written by Black, 2013's seventh instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a film of firsts and lasts. Straightforwardly, it was the first movie released after 2012’s The Avengers but the last standalone Iron Man movie.
And in practice, it’s the first Marvel Studios outing to reckon with what came before, and the last one to up-end fan expectations so gleefully. One year after the crowd-pleasing team-up, Iron Man 3 gives us a darkly funny, wilfully subversive trilogy-closer with nothing like the current MCU’s commitment to a status quo.
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In the aftermath of his near-death experience and shawarma date with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Tony Stark is an anxious wreck. He doesn’t sleep at night, he has panic attacks at the thought of the Battle of New York, and he spends his days obsessively building a weird and wonderful array of new armours for all eventualities.
But when danger arrives, it’s in the shape of a terrorist frontman calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Bringing destruction to his own doorstep, Tony is left out in the cold, embarking on a low-tech investigation of this new threat and his Extremis-powered human bombs.
When the film hit cinemas worldwide in May 2013, the threequel “fall and rise” plot structure would have been familiar to anyone who’d enjoyed Skyfall or The Dark Knight Rises in cinemas the year before, but the sticking point for Iron Man 3’s detractors is that it’s not nearly as solemn about it. After all, it’s a Shane Black movie – it’s even set at Christmas!
More than that though, it’s designed as a capper for Iron Man, rather than a table setting for the next eight films. Even the already standard post-credit scene is a punchline rather than a teaser.
It’s far from flawless, but in that regard, it’s more self-contained than anything else that’s come out of Marvel Studios since.
Though he reprises his role as Stark Industries’ Happy Hogan in Iron Man 3, Jon Favreau had already moved on from directing MCU movies by this point, with writer-director Joss Whedon taking on The Avengers instead. In March 2011, Marvel announced that Black would direct Iron Man 3 and co-write the script with screenwriter Drew Pearce.
Shortly after this, Aint It Cool News reported that Black spoke about the film on a panel at the Omaha Film Festival, declaring that the studio was unhappy with Iron Man 2’s “two men in iron suits fighting each other” and his intention was to make more of a Tom Clancy-style thriller with real-world villains.
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In the background of this, Downey’s original six-picture deal with Marvel was set to expire with the upcoming Avengers sequel. At a point when the studio was famously frugal with its budgets, there was a notion that Iron Man 3 should conclude Tony’s standalone trilogy satisfactorily in case the star didn’t come back for further Marvel films.
Keeping things grounded and personal, the film’s main reference to the world-altering events of The Avengers is Tony’s reaction to it, including his PTSD. Tasked with following the big team-up, it gives us a template that subsequent solo movies didn’t really follow: it’s smaller in scale because it has to be. But in the franchise machinery, it’s a breather between the reality-warping and Helicarrier-smashing antics that ensued in the Thor and Captain America sequels.
Iron Man 3 doesn’t skimp on action either though. And in a series that has increasingly lost sight of actual super-heroics for the most part, it is for better (the dazzling Air Force One rescue sequence) worse (fighting alongside a plucky child prodigy played by Ty Simpkins) as grounded in something like the real world as Black intended.
Demon in a bottle
Where Phase One of the MCU was more free-wheeling in the range of styles and filmmakers who brought it together, Phase Two was immediately more hemmed in by Marvel and Disney (which closed its acquisition of the studio in 2012). Even Whedon, who pulled off the first Avengers movie so well, had a more stressful time making the 2015 sequel Avengers: Age Of Ultron due to the franchise pulling the film in different directions.
Compared to that, Black got to make the film his own, but he was still forced to change the arch-villain from geneticist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) to CEO Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) at the studio’s behest.
In 2016, he told Uproxx: “There was an early draft of Iron Man 3 where we had an inkling of a problem. Which is that we had a female character who was the villain in the draft. We had finished the script and we were given a no-holds-barred memo saying that cannot stand and we’ve changed our minds because, after consulting, we’ve decided that toy won’t sell as well if it’s a female... So, we had to change the entire script because of toy making.”
Nevertheless, Black got the film he wanted to make across the line – without forsaking the CG-beat-‘em-ups or sense of humour of the other films, it’s a techno-thriller that pointedly satirises American foreign policy and the war on terror, all from Tony Stark’s perspective.
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The film won glowing reviews and went on to gross more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office… but you’d never know this to look at the backlash.
Toast of Croydon
The fan discourse of 2013 might even look tame a decade later, but another notable first for Iron Man 3 was Marvel’s first vocal backlash from online fans. In the main, this centred around the film’s biggest carpet-pull, that the Mandarin, traditionally Iron Man’s arch-enemy in the comics, is a front for American profiteers. Better yet, he’s a sozzled actor called Trevor Slattery.
Mileage may vary, but it’s a funny reveal in a film that’s not especially reverent about either its subject or its satirical target. As seen in the comics, the Mandarin is a super-powered Fu Manchu stereotype that’s difficult to play straight in a modern live-action film, and indeed, Marvel had been putting off including him since the first Iron Man.
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Working entirely on-theme, Black and Pearce come up with a solution that cuts right through that – he is, as illustrated, invented by Americans to scare Americans. It’s not for nothing that Rhodey (Don Cheadle) has been given a lick of red-white-and-blue paint and rebranded from War Machine to Iron Patriot either.
In the years since Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios has often been criticised for its risk-averse storytelling and it didn’t take too long for the studio to start appeasing the backlash. In 2014, Pearce wrote and directed a One-Shot short called All Hail The King, which established that there is a real Mandarin by having him get to Kingsley’s Slattery in prison.
2021’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings went one further, dealing with another problematic adaptation by replacing the title character’s dad from the comics (actual Fu Manchu) with this real Mandarin (Tony Leung) and further bringing back Slattery, a one-joke character, to deliver crucial exposition – he’s functional, but without the “fun” of his original appearance. Kingsley will also appear in the forthcoming Disney+ series Wonder Man.
A new age for heroes
As for Tony, whose character development is neatly wrapped up at the end of this one, Age Of Ultron all but ignores how he gives up the suits at the end of this one to stick him back in action with the rest of the team.
Downey did sign for more movies, starting with Captain America: Civil War and he got a more definitive full-stop in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, but this well-done finale was retconned into a semi-colon.
Indeed, Iron Man 3 marks the last time its standalone approach ever touches the core Avengers cast. Successive Captain America movies tee up further Avengers instalments to one extent or another, Thor is Earth’s Spongiest Hero depending on what the story arc needs from him, and even the long-belated solo Black Widow movie (something, something, toy making) now seems to have been tailor-made to introduce the cast of next year’s Thunderbolts movie.
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Some of the further backlashes to Marvel post-Endgame are partly because audiences don’t want stories to go smaller again, as this one did after the first Avengers, but also that the movies are neither standalone stories nor apparently building to something in particular.
10 years and 20-odd films later, Iron Man 3 seems to be the last-known sighting of a self-contained Marvel movie.
Iron Man 3 is streaming on Disney+.